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Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Bad-News Letter (isn't so bad after all).

It has a bad reputation--the bad-news letter, but that's only because the word bad is in it.

Actually, the bad-news letter has some important jobs to accomplish:  written clearly, the bad-news letter alerts the reader that there is a problem, suggests ways to correct the problem, asks for action in a way that tact and subtlety usually have failed to do (or you wouldn't be writing it) and creates a record of the problem and the point of view of management in case someone asks later, still blinded to his/her own shortcomings:   "What do you mean?"

That happens.

It happens because communication is hard in the workplace.  People are busy, self-centered, self-deceived and sometimes outright lazy.  A bad-news letter attempts to amelieorate the tensions that being human causes, and the good news is--it does.

Unlike other letters that contain bad news, the official bad news letter of a reprimand, for instance, is not usually a dead end letter.

It is used like a bell that serves as a wake up call.

Unlike a "Dear John" (or a "Dear Jane") letter that can break a reader's heart long distance, a bad-news letter has redeeming qualities. Its immediate goal is usually not to reject you; it's meant to cultivate you, improve your performance, get your attention.  

Its most significant redeeming quality is that the bad-news letter tells the reader the truth.

But even ordinarily perceptive people who are obtuse about their own shortcomings can still misread or misunderstand a bad-news letter.  That is why you need to keep some steps in mind if it is your job to write one:

1.  Begin in a non-threatening way
2.  Explain the problem
3.  Suggest ways to solve the problem you are writing about.
4. Ask for action to correct the problem.
5. Lay out a time frame for action and the promise to revisit the situation later after enough time has passed for the reader's action to have achieved results.
6. Close the letter in a friendly way, but don't make any promises you aren't prepared to keep.

Remember, the job of a bad-news letter is to ultimately help the reader.

Writing one doesn't make you a bad guy. It just means you're the boss.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Why A Paragraph Needs a Shape

Unlike a sack of potatoes, a paragraph needs a shape.  A paragraph is not a bag of rice.  It's not a tub of popcorn.

A paragraph is a collection of sentences that move the reader to follow along with the writer while he/she explores an idea that is introduced in the topic sentence.

So often, people assume that we have outgrown being mindful of paragraph shapes--have somehow decided that it is too much trouble to begin a paragraph with a topic sentence.

But when they are reading, people need a topic sentence at the top of a paragraph. They need the bridge that it makes by connecting the reader to the idea that the writer hopes you will be interested in enough to follow.

Unfortunately the shape of the paragraph has become a loose and pitiful thing.  It is more formless than it has ever been, largely because people forget that they are writing in different environments.

Different environments, like different occasions, dictate the nature of your attire; and when you are conducting business or communicating professionally, the attire is more structured.

Paragraphs should reflect that structure.

When they don't, they are really only the inside of the message you mean.  Look at your last casually written paragraph and ask yourself:  What's there?  What's missing?

If the paragraph has exactly the information in it that you wanted to send, then you have written the middle of your message but that doesn't mean that you reader will know how to process it, because you did not supply a bridge--an introductory sentence that lassoed your reader and held onto him/her until you loosened that loop--that paragraph--by writing a concluding sentence that primed your reader to draw the conclusions that you want him/her to make.

See?  Controlling the shape of the paragraph is about steering your readers to where you want their attention to go and then releases them when you have reached that safe place where agreement can be established.

The next time you have a message to share or information to report in a workplace situation, ask yourself: am I stuffing a sack with potatoes or writing a meaningful paragraph?  If the answer is the latter, then get yourself a lasso--a topic sentence--and catch a reader before you dump the message on him/her.

Strong Anecdotes Produce The Stickiness Factor

Not everyone tells a story well, but most everyone needs to be able to tell one for illustration purposes in the workplace.

There are different types of stories to tell and different times to tell them.

There is the story of your work and educational history that you tell in a job interview (These stories about you show up differently in the cover letter and through the resume, but they are still stories.)

Inside the interview process whether you are going to be a nurse, veterinarian or play the tuba, the person who wants to know your story is looking for something more than a rambling version of your life.  He/she is not even really looking for a faithful rendition of your story told in perfect chronological sequence. (It will be too long.)

He/she is looking for that vivid image or sound bite that reveals how committed you are to your vocation and perhaps can explain the turning point in your life when you made a decision that has brought you to the doorstep of this company and your story repeats that decision--explains:  This is it. This is what I want to do. This is why.  Interviewers want to know if you have committed yourself because they are about to make a financial commitment to you in training and perhaps a probationary period of employment. It costs money to hire people. Companies want to hire the right people, and that story you tell in the interview assures them of this.
Know that story about yourself and be ready to tell it when asked.  The person who does ask is not just making conversation.  He/she is looking for clues to your commitment, your resolve and what comes after the story you tell also tells another story:  when you make a decision, do you follow through?  What is the level of your commitment?

Stories matter in the workplace, and you will see and hear a bunch of them.

But you will tell stories too.

You will tell them after you have told the ones that helped you get a job.

You will use stories that illustrate a point you need to make where the numbers you have may not do the whole job of saying what you need to communicate. You will need to be able to tell the back story of an event as well as the story of an event itself.

You will learn how to use artwork to tell the story of what you mean, too, because artwork can indeed replace a thousand words.

You can tell a story when logic alone won't move your listener to agree with you or even entertain your point of view.  When you do that, you are moving into using a type of story referred to as having emotional appeal.

There are as many labels for stories as there are stories, and they gain their subtitles and categories by the functions they perform.

But today, we are looking at stories--workplace stories.  There are as many of them as there needs to be, but they share one major dynamic in common:  the most effective ones have a sticky quality--they stick with the reader/the listener, and they do that because they are tightly written or told, have a better than average share of action verbs, use adjectives (sparingly) that engage the senses and go some place and then stop.

Good stories, like blog entries, have a beginning and an ending.

Good bye.

An Email Is Not a Thread on a Discussion Board

Two minutes ago I received an e-mail that read: why is that  (No punctuation)

It was as if the speaker thought we were having a conversation and answered in what is commonly called stream-of-consciousnessness.

Typically associated with British writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce  stream-of-consciousness writing in the workplace has no redeeming literary values but it does tell a story:

It says to the reader that the reader who engages in plugs of conversation written without mindfulness (no caps or punctuation) lives in the center of his universe where he/she believes that no other conversations are happening without him or are not about him.

It is an arrogant, careless posture that puts the burden on unpacking the message intended on the reader who is first stymied by the sloppy prose and then must back peddle to see what this person is writing about.

It is poor writing.  It does not communicate any idea clearly.  And it does not usually persuade the reader of anything the writer has in mind, but it does convince the reader that the writer does not know the difference between different types and functions of workplace documents--doesn't know the difference between a phone call message or a note on a Post-It sheet or that an e-mail message to a boss (yep, that's me) is not the same type of communique that one writes to a pal where "why is that" would most likely make sense in the shorthand world of fast communication between friends.

While most workplaces attempt to create and foster a teamwork building atmosphere even that goal should not result in the off-the-cuff, ill-considered communications that show up in professionals' e-boxes where they are read as workplace documents and used, like hard copy documents, for recordkeeping and tools of productivity.

Any time you have to squint at the screen and ask yourself 'Who is this and what is he writing about?' it might be best to simply hit the reply button when the question asked of you is the one the sender needs to reconsider: why is that  ?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Paths of Motion: Intuitive Movements and Counter-Intuitive on the Web

My exercise guru Leslie Sansone uses the phrase "paths of motion" when she teaches me how to try a different walking step, like moving side to side.  It never seems hard when she shows me; but, I find that she's right to acknowledge that I need to learn this "path of motion" before I can rely upon my body's muscle memory to accomplish it for me by rote.

Similarly, when I attempt to learn new techniques for using technology, I find that what seems logical to me often does not result in a logical effect--at least, not the way I define logic.  I'm an old two-plus-two-equals- four thinker, and sometimes what seems to happen is a more fractionalized division of zig-zagging steps that move from a point of origin to a destination. 

Navigating technological tools that mark the path don't seem as familiar to me usually as 2 plus 2 or moving side-to-side.  If your brain is wired to move in concert with technology or the movements of the social media, then you can call yourself "intuitive", but it your brain doesn't work like that, your response is considered "counter-intuitive."

Lately I'm trying to figure out how to teach my brain to be more intuitive.  To do that, I am reexamining my questions that I ask before doing something as simple as posting a link that features me.   My initial response:  Isn't this vain to post this link?  My second thought is:  Isn't this just business to post a link that builds your presence on the web?   It still feels vain and wrong to do it, and I did it anyway because my new brainwave path is:  You don't don't know the answer, and your feelings are not telling you the truth about how the social media does its work.  Set aside your feelings and your predispositions, and see what happens after you do it.

I did it--posted a link that showcased my short stories featuring church woman Mildred Budge.   Encouragement from friends followed.  The link traveled.  Other people discovered the news that the link contained.  My head didn't get any bigger from the attention.  In fact, just the opposite happened.

There's something very humbling about moving into the currents of the social media that have a path of motion that is vital in business today.  It's like launching a small vessel onto the large ocean without a map, no real knowledge of how to read the stars and a compass that tells you the direction you're headed but you don't know if that's where you want to go.

My intuition regularly tells me that I am vain to try to try something new on the web that feels foreign to my muscle memory or sensibilities; but my feelings and intuition are not the truth. The reality is that there's room for everyone on the web, and the path of motion doesn't lead where I thought it would.

It leads to a new way of being with people and communicating news, and it's not negative or wrong because it feels counter-intuitive.  Like the ocean, it just is and it has many paths of motion that anyone who works needs to learn.

What that means is that how it works doesn't fit with the muscle memory of your brainpower, and you are teaching your brain to think like that so that you can navigate more efficiently in the future.

That will happen.  Testing the waters teaches your brain the paths of motion.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Don't Ask Your Daughter (Or, at least, don't say you will.)

After I finished upgrading my friend’s resume—she had been looking for a new job for 18 months since the economy fired her—I printed 10 copies on deluxe paper, put it in a good envelope, and handed it to her with the instructions: “Just cut and paste the body of that cover letter into a new document any time you need to produce a fresh cover letter. Do you know how to cut and paste using a word processor?”

“My daughter does,” she said with satisfaction, taking the package.

She peeped inside and then held the envelope appreciatively. “I can use this envelope to turn in an application,” she remarked, looking at me to make sure the envelope came with the resumes permanently. I nodded, sure.

That happens a lot with people who have lost their jobs and who I sometimes help find a job by spiffing up a resume that is twenty years old. When they give their old resume to me they usually say, “There’s not much to work with.”

I immediately want to hand them a copy of Norman Vincent Peale’s old classic The Power of Positive Thinking because they need a booster shot of self confidence. They lost their jobs, and now they are on the market like divorc├ęs that were married a long time and must figure out how to date again.

In that way I am a kind of matchmaker, a business-writing teacher at the local university who has been giving advice to many of my friends who are back on the job market and want tips on how to look better on the page of their resumes and perhaps sound stronger—more positive—in a job interview which they get if their resume tells a persuasive story about their careers, their skills, and their ability to solve problems.

When I ask human resource managers what they are screening for when reading resumes they all say, “I am looking for a problem solver.” More than one HR manager has added, “I don’t care if someone worked in fast food or a doctor’s office; I need problem solvers.”

It’s the universal job requirement whatever the job, and when I help script new resumes I look for opportunities in a person’s work history that proves this. Ironically, needing to look like a problem solver happens to people who are at a low point and not at all sure they can solve the problem of their own unemployment. The good news is—they can, and it happens in simple ways like answering the question of whether you know how to cut and paste using a word processing system.

When someone asks you if you can cut and paste, you may not be able to truthfully say yes, but you should not say you are going to ask your daughter or any other young person to do it for you.

It’s not that I don’t understand the impulse. I do. There are times when I luxuriate in the notion of calling my niece Katie and saying, “My IPod needs refreshing.” But it’s not because I can’t refresh my own IPod; it is that I sometimes create reasons for my niece to come over. She feels strongly about my IPod and music, and those two passions are enough to bring her to my house for a visit.

Sometimes our dependency on the young people in our lives to solve our tech problems is the way we have figured out to keep them close—or close enough to visit—but saying that out loud to people who are trying to help you find a job where you need to be a problem solver and technologically competent in word processing maneuvers is a luxurious answer you can’t afford to make while you are looking for a job. Not now. Not in this recession that may be on its way out—but until a person who is out of a job gets a job, it isn’t.

I believe she can find a job. I believe a new resume will help her, and her resume looks pretty good if I do say so myself. It is error free. The information is organized logically. It telegraphs some meaningful strengths and interprets her work history in a positive way using language that proves she is a seasoned, dependable worker who has proven to be a negotiator and a problem-solver—key pieces of information that a prospective employer will zero in on.

My friend reads her new resume, and and says, “You see a lot in me that I don’t see in myself.”

I smile. “It’s all true,” I reply. “Isn’t it?”

She reads, nods. “You have made my name awfully big on the page.”

She feels small these days; her name in 16 pt font in the header seems bigger than she feels.

“It’s not too big,” I promise her. “And you will notice on that cover letter I have drafted for you that I cut and pasted the same header from the resume onto the letterhead so that you can have consistency in the appearance of your professional documents. In sales we call that branding; in business writing we call that telegraphing that you are organized, predictable and consistent.”

She eyes her big name skeptically and seems to shrink inside.

“Read that letter several times. Read your resume over and over. Double-check me. We can make changes.”

She shakes her head, resistant to having to make corrections on a document that she can put in that good envelope and deliver to her one job lead that she has.

I didn’t think she would ask for any changes. She’s disoriented, out of work, and like other people I have been helping as a friend to rebuild resumes in order to launch them back into the job market she doesn’t trust herself right now. Doesn’t believe in herself. Doesn’t actually know what positive thinking is. At its core, positive thinking is having the will or the self confidence to solve problems.

And that is what employers are looking for in their workplaces where problems abound as they always have, and where people who have been caught by surprise—and people who lose their jobs are all caught by surprise—must indicate that they have adjusted and can adapt and learn the basics of a new job environment, such as features of word processing that are simple formulas, like cut and paste.

Finding a job isn’t as simple, but learning the simple skills that prove that you are a problem solver can get you there are. Until you know them, believe that you can learn them. And if someone asks you what appears to be an off-the-cuff question like, “Can you cut and paste?” the answer is not that you’ll ask your daughter; instead, prove that you are a problem solve and reply, “I’ll get it done.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Good-News Letter Has More Than One Job To Do.

A good-news letter has more than one job:  to tell the reader that something great has occurred.

It exists in the workplace to not only recognize excellence but to promote it.

That happens initially with the person receives the letter.  By the end of the letter, the overall message should be:  Job well done!  Keep up the good work!

But before that letter is finished, a good-news letter will challenge the person whose achievements are being recognized to greater productivity.

For that reason, the good-news letter is not only a pat on the back, it is a kick in the pants.

When used strategically, the good-news letter that acknowledges outstanding performance can also motivate the rest of the staff or team.

For a good-news letter that contains no private information that can't be shared should be shared if you want to maximize the benefits of producing one:  a good-news letter motivates the reader and can motivate the team who should be spurred to greater competitiveness.

Here's one way to write one:

Begin with a proper salutation that sets the tone, and spell the name of the recipient correctly.

Begin with announcing the good news.  (Save subtlety for bad news.)

Explain the benefits of the good news.  Example:  You get your own parking spot! 

Conclude with a message that says something like this:  Thank you for your hard work. We are expecting even greater accomplishments from you in the future.

Yes, good-news letters are always welcome, and they are so much more fun to write than bad-news letters (which have more jobs to do than good-news letters)l but a good-news letter multi-tasks:  it rewards the reader, challenges the reader--and motivates others who know about it.

Think about all of those benefits the next time you have an opportunity to praise a member of your team or staff for an accomplishment.  Because good-news letters are not just a reaction of off-the-cuff praise; they are motivational tools that have the potential to increase productivity while enhancing job satisfaction and improving workplace morale.

Daphne Simpkins' most recent book is.Christmas in Fountain City

Monday, August 23, 2010

Thinking Outside the Box on the Cutting Edge

Everyone wants to be on the cutting edge of their field. I know because they say so.

To get there, they confess that they must "think outside the box."

Only most people don't really know what box they're talking about, and because they have no sense of direction about where the cutting edge is they can't point to it on a map.

Few people can.

Further, some people get mixed up about what the cutting edge is. They confuse it with being outside their comfort zone. That is, they have pushed themselves to try something new and different, and they're taxed and uncomfortable. It feels like a cutting edge situation, but it's not.

Being outside a person's comfort zone is not the same place people mean when they refer to being on the cutting edge of change.

This place is sometimes described as new and improved. Upgraded. (It might even have all the bells and whistles.)

But these sales pitch words are really more about spinning the image of a product than real improvements engineered by a manufacturer who has anticipated a fresh type of demand in the marketplace and met that demand with an evolution in design of a product or fine-tuning of a service.

Frankly, much of the language that we use in everyday business parlance is really more about mimicking sales pitches than declaring an entreprenurial scheme or charting a plan that will take us from the position we're in to the one we need to be in to stay competitive or even, more basically, still employed.

The position we need to be in is on the cutting edge by thinking outside the box; but if you are still using those words to describe what you mean, you aren't really thinking outside the box at all.

The cutting edge must be further away than than what a cliche can explain.

To get there, read the terrific little book "Who Moved My Cheese?" by Johnson and Blanchard. It was published in 1998 and was on the cutting edge of how to adapt to cutting-edge changes in the workplace (and in your daily life, too, by the way).

The information it presents is still just as timely, and because it is, the book truly does sit on the cutting edge of thinking creatively about where you are and where you want to go.

Can You Help Me Out?

One of the great features of online linking with other professionals is the more casual way that references--or, in this case, endorsements--are sought.

As someone who has previously been asked by students I have only known for a short time for a reference I find this looser way of expressing good will much more comfortable and authentic to the situation.

Previously when students sought serious recommendations I often politely refused. My answer sounded like this: I have only known you for sixteen weeks and we have only met twice a week. I did most of the talking.

When I recommend someone for a job I need to know more--say more.

But that's not the case on web forums like Linkedin. where a question similiar to "Can you help me out?" means: Is there something good you can say about me?

Well, sure.

To loosely quote Will Rogers: I've never met a man (or student) I didn't like. Actually Rogers said something like that after a meaningful trip to Russia when he said that once you get to know someone, it's not hard to like that person.

You can't really know everything you need to know about someone to recommend them unequivocally for employment. But you can have this genial good will and that also matters. Prospective employers have their own way of assessing skill sets, but they also want to know if this applicant can get along with other people.

Now, when someone I'm linked with (usually a student)asks, "Can you help me out?" I just hit the reply button and write something true about how I feel.

It may not be the most professional way of recommending someone, but it's true--and that's pretty powerful.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

David and Goliath: A Cautionary Tale

People comfortably refer to commonly known stories in a shorthand way of communicating an idea they want to share.

The David and Goliath story is used this way frequently, mostly by people who have lost some kind of conflict and don't want to take responsibility for the loss. They blame others, sincerely.

When referencing this story, the loser of the conflict blames someone bigger than himself: Goliath--a name that represents any adversary and is routinely considered "The Bad Guy."

For Goliath refers to a giant in the Bible who taunted the people of God--people who were afraid to fight for their God, except for a small shepherd boy named David. Goliath's slander of his God offended the shepherd boy, and David took action.

Using the type of slingshot he employed regularly to run off big animals that were after the sheep in his care, David loaded a slingshot with one carefully chosen rock to fell the giant by nailing him square in the head. The giant tumbled. David was victorious. The smaller Good Guy beat the Big Bad Guy because--and here's the implication--the smaller Good Guy had God on his side and his intentions were honorable. He was fighting for the honor of his God.

That's the story from the Bible, but when businesspeople refer to this story, in their haste to justify themselves, they often get the story backwards.

They use it to imply that the giant--the adversary in business and often politics (because politicians use it too when they lose an election) was too big. They were outsized; the battle was lost before it began! They report: "It was a David and Goliath situation." And I lost.

But if it were a genuine David and Goliath situation, the good guy would have won. The reference doesn't work on any level.

The reference to David and Goliath is meant to justify the speaker's failure--to put it in a heroic context. But it doesn't.

Instead the speaker simply looks like not only a loser in business but someone who isn't thinking clearly and hasn't really read the story he's referencing because he is using it wrong.

That's easy to do when the culture perpetuates sound bite ideas that refer to a broader context, like stories of success and failure-- in this instance, from The Bible.

When this happens, a true cautionary tale emerges: we should use stories carefully and mindfully as illustrations to back up what we mean to communicate. When we don't, we inadvertently tell a very different truth. We telegraph to others that we are ignorant and talk too much without thinking about what we say.

In the workplace where good business practices are built upon credible reporting of facts, that's just not good business.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Fresh Out of a Tin Can

Consider the peach. During the height of the peach season, this fruit is sweet, easy to peel, delicious. It doesn't taste much like peaches from a can, which are still pretty good. I use canned peaches for a particular cobbler I make, but it's not my favorite peach cobbler--just the one I make when I don't have fresh peaches, and I don't serve it to company.

Fresh peach cobbler is for company, and when you write any kind of document that the world will read (eat), it needs to be made from fresh language.

Some people (and business writers) forget that too often because it is so easy to cut and paste copy blocks from one available document into the open white space of the screen in front of you.

But when you do, you are basically serving the equivalent of canned peaches.

Only in this instance, you are using canned language. Another name for that prepacked language is "template language" --words that come from templates that have been built for consumption by people who don't understand that their words represent who they are on the page.

When you use template language you are telegraphing in a meaningful way that you don't think for yourself and can't write. When employers specifically ask for applicants who are able communicators, they don't mean they want someone who knows how to cut and paste.
They want someone who understands the difference between canned language and words authentically used to present ideas persuasively or keep accurate documents, because a great deal of business writing is recordkeeping.

As you confront your next writing task, whether it's an email that you have been concluding with "Have a nice day!" to a report that should bring fresh insight to what could be old news or weak numbers, use your own words.

When you don't--if you used recycled language--your presence and thinking on the page will taste the same way peaches do out of a can.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Thank in Advance! (No, thanks.)

Like the impersonal phrase "loved ones" that derived from funeral homes where obituaries are constructed, the parting phrase "Thanks in advance" or, more simply, "Thanks!" is a poor choice for what the writer needs to use in a piece of workplace communication because it sounds like where it came from: bill collectors.

"Madame, you owe us money. Send it today. Thanks in advance."
That's the general thrust of a bill collector's message.

Somehow, just as the phrase "loved ones" has seeped into popular discourse to refer inadequately to people in your life that you hold dear, the parting phrase "Thanks in advance" is often the close for all kinds of messages, some of them requests, some demands, and others that require something authentic to the situation, such as: Sincerely, yours truly, best regards. For those are closings to missives, and "Thanks in advance" is not.

It's a matter of logic if not courtesy.
If you are making a request, you truly are not making one if your expectation is so high as to thank the person in advance for complying.

And if the person has not yet complied, gratitude is out of place.

More often, that closing feels presumptuous to a reader.

But perhaps you don't know that.

The next time you refer to your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife as "loved one", stop and muse whether he/she likes the inadequacy of the sentiment.

Then, reconsider ever using "Thanks in advance", unless you are, of course, a bill collector just doing your job.

An E-mail's Success Often Depends Upon Its Integrity

In spite of the universal nature of an email that can and does go anywhere, it is not a medium that has one shape that fits all purposes.

Today I received a request for me for a heavy-duty favor from someone I have never met, but it wasn't phrased that way. It was written with the expectation that I would say yes and sounded more like a notification of what I was about to do for her. Rather than ask me for the help, the writer explained what I should do, when I should do it, and added, "Thanks!" as if I had agreed to break a rule for her (that was her request) and simultaneously give to her what I had declined to seven other strangers who had written to me with the same request.

Like many people in the workplace, I receive all kinds of emails and many like this.

The casual nature of the email often dupes fast-moving writers who need something fast to send an email that they hope will accomplish a job and solve a very real problem. Sometimes these emails achieve the desired result in spite of the nature of the content of the email. But in many, many cases an email written on the fly that does not respect the integrity of its own purpose will fail to achieve the successful reply that is sought and often truly needed.

If you want to increase your odds of achieving more positive replies from people in the workplace, reconsider the purpose of every email you write, and make sure that the content of your message reflects your stance. If it is a request, ask politely and reasonably for what you want rather than tell the reader what to do for you--NOW.

You might also include a so-what factor for the reader. That is, if you have a request that puts an extra burden upon your reader if your reader says yes, then include some kind of potential benefit for the reader. That is NOT a bribe. It is something like, "I know this late request may sound like I could become the kind of worker who will always require special consideration and help from you, but I won't be. If you say yes today, you will discover that I am disciplined, responsible and easy to get along with." That's a so-what factor I pay attention to when it is offered in a variety of ways from writers who do understand how to make a request that will achieve results-or at least the strongest consideration possible.

So often, an email doesn't communicate the message intended, and most emails written in the workplace should because they should not waste a reader's time.

Today, when you write an email that is intended to help you solve a problem that needs to be solved, make sure that you respect the integrity of the purpose you have in mind. If it's a request, make one. If it's the passing along of information, do that.

Whatever the case, if you take the time to consider the integrity of your message, when a reader opens it he/she will know more about you than what you have written: he/she will understand that you have integrity too.

The Shotgun E-mail

For all of its strengths as a fast and efficient way of communicating information quickly (or building contacts) an e-mail has an Achilles heel. You remember Achilles? He was invincible except for the hamstring in the back of his leg near the ankle. Sever that and he was incapacitated.

An e-mail's potential for incapacitation is not as serious but it can have the opposite unintended effect on a reader if the writer doesn't think before writing: if an e-mail doesn't build a bridge, the information in the e-mail can function more like a shotgun blast right in the face than the delivery vessle of information or the persuasive presentation of a position by the writer of the email.

Here's an example of what I mean. Envision an email with no greeting and a vague subject heading. Here's the message:

Bring your documents to the meeting at 2 PM.

While the message is succinct and informative, the tone of the message is abrupt because it lacks the language of tact and courtesy.

A more inviting way to encourage group participation could be:

May I remind you of the meeting scheduled today at 2 PM where we will discuss the agenda items that you already know from the email sent to you on August 15th. Please bring the materials you need to share with others as we discuss the agenda items, and, if possible, make copies for others. There will be fifteen members present so organization of materials is key to our moving through the agenda swiftly.

I look forward to seeing you at 2 PM. If you have any questions or need clarification, do write again before the meeting. Chances are, if you have questions, others do too.

Now, that's a lengthier e-mail but it works on building a relationship with readers rather than simply telling readers what to do.

Which one do you prefer? To be asked or told what to do?

Keep your answer in mind when you write e-mails in the workplace, and remember: without tact or courtesy an e-mail may feel more like a shotgun blast of information than the welcome delivery of needed information. When it does, the Achilles heel of the e-mail is revealed. It is fast, but it's not as efficient as you envision it to be if it does not build the relationship with readers that it could or provide the kind of information that will make the productivity in the workplace as fast and efficient as it can be.

Monday, August 16, 2010

How To Write An E-mail

You know how to type, and you have more than one e-mail account; one of them is actually in your own name. You text message too. In fact maybe you brag about how many texts you sent last month. Was it 2,200? (My niece Katie sent that many, and she was very proud.)

But the news concerned me, and my concern is not just about the possible case of carpal tunnel syndome she is likely to get one day; I am concerned that she is so overwhelmed with fast-moving type and predictive words that pop up when you type a couple of letters that she will forget that in a business environment or a school workplace, you write an e-mail differently.

Here are a few tips to remember:

Use an e-mail account that identifies who you really are for the reader. Add a signature block at the end to confirm it.

Use the subject heading line to forecast what your e-mail message is about. (Be careful not to make some kind of joke in the header that gets misunderstood as a SPAM come-on. People get deleted for that reason.)

Use a greeting that establishes a rapport. The receiver's properly spelled name is a good choice. (Don't use "hey." Really. Don't use it.)
Respect the shape of paragraphs. They should still exist in e-mails if your message has a business purpose.

Use proper grammar.

Use capitalization. (Remember that grammar and punctuation show great respect as they help the reader to figure out the content of your message without having to strain.)

In business, you don't put the burden of unpacking or deciphering your communication intentions on the reader. You make yourself easy to understand by writing e-mails with thought and attention.

How do you write an e-mail? Very carefully.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Power Of the Apology

While experts and lawyers differ on whether one should apologize in the workplace and how, I am a big fan of the apology as I am other elements of good manners. I know some linguistic experts claim that an apology can be seen as a sign of weakness and that you must be careful not to put yourself in a one-down position; I also know apologizing at the wrong moment can make you liable in court for various accusations.

But I am not talking about those kinds of situations. I am writing today about the simple procedures of getting business done that often go awry because the office is run by people and people can be slow, thoughtless, selfish and, at times, obtuse. I am guilty of all of those slights against humanity and I apologize regularly.

When we are exercising our daily right to be human we make the kinds of mistakes in the workplace that are like stepping on someone's toes. When we do, we should apologize.

Apologizing soothes hurt feelings, shows respect for others and proves that you have the kind of self awareness and self respect that empowers you to admit a mistake.

Admitting to a mistake is not a sign of incompetence; it is a testimony to being responsible.

But admitting a mistake and apologizing for it is not the only way an apology is used.

When you are the bystander to an office problem you did not generate you can still help by apologizing. You can say, "I am so sorry this has happened. How can I help you straighten it out?"

For after an apology in the workplace one almost immediately recognizes that a solution to whatever has happened is very much needed.

For me, an apology is a signal that the solution to the problem is close by. There won't be anything stopping its arrival now, because the emotions and hurt feelings and pride have been put in their place by the powerful apology that lets us all get back to work.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Hopscotch Prose

Yesterday I read the proposed advertising copy for a collection of short stories that I wrote and which will be released in about four months (Miss Budge In Love).

At first I liked the copy block. Then, I read it a second time and began to see that the ideas did not join together logically. The ideas leap-frogged from one sentence to the next without a joiner that bridged them for the reader.

On the third reading underneath all that ego-pleasing praise I identified word choices that suited a non-fiction self-help book better than a collection of mostly humorous short stories intended to prompt readers to laugh at my featured character and at themselves. The tone of the words should match the character of the product.

When I tried to name what was wrong, it occurred to me that I was looking at a verbal equivalent of the game Hopscotch where the player jumps from one number to the next but the pattern of numbers usually written in chalk on a sidewalk don't make a meaningful shape. Further, the player--in this case, the copy block that was supposed to position my product in the marketplace-- was trying to find a balance on one leg and wouldn't last for long. If I had used that copy block my book wouldn't have had a very long life because if sales depended on that description it couldn't stand up in a marketplace for long.

I want my product to have the longest shelf life possible. I want every aspect of the promotion of it to be the best I can produce or oversee. Yesterday, I thought that the tone, word choice, and shape of my promotional copy wasn't strong enough to represent my work competitively in the marketplace of selling books.

I rewrote the copy and substituted all of it. I am still paying the copywriter because the hired writer did the best he could; however, I don't think the final product is supports my purposes--to sell books--so I won't use it.

That's not arrogance. It's not vanity. It's business.
And that's what this blog will be about. Whatever your trade--however you plan to earn money--you will need to have a greater command of how you use words.

This column will offer tips and perspectives to help everyone who is in business to understand the dynamics of writing in basic, daily ways in order to become a more professional writer and, consequently, as night follows day, more profitable in your work when you do.